Day of Reckoning Coming for Big Brands; or, to Hell and Back on United

I’ll start with a caveat: I’m PO’d. I spent a night from hell on Tuesday trying to get to Toronto from Chicago. But I hope in the midst of my spouting I get a valid point across.

First, the story of why I’m PO’d. I was flying United on what was supposed to be a one hour hop from Chicago to Toronto. By the way, United asked over $500 for this hop.

I start off by grabbing a sandwich at a little express counter by the gate from a place called Reggio’s To Go. A basic ham and cheese cost me about 8 bucks. This is an airport, so I’m not expecting great things from the 8 dollar sandwich, but even with those low expectations set, I was surprised by how abysmal the sandwich actually was. I had to check twice to make sure it was the sandwich I was eating and not the packaging. It tasted like it had been sitting in the display case since the early Bronze Age. I happened to glance at the sign for Reggio’s, which is obviously a franchise. The brand message is “Fresh and Ready to Go”. “Ready to go” in the garbage seems to be what they meant.

We’re on board by 6:15, the scheduled departure time. The plane is packed, leg room is negligible, and to make matters worse, the person sitting to my immediate right is just coming back from Japan. There’s no room left in overhead, so she tries to jam a roller suitcase, a backpack and a large shopping bag under the seat. None of the 3 fit, so she piles them on the floor between her legs, hoping no one will notice. Nobody does..or at least, nobody mentions anything. This makes the already scarce leg room even more restricted. By this point, I’m resigned to a miserable one hour trip, but then again, it’s an airline, so I didn’t really expect anything more.

The plane is unbelievably hot, but no worries, we should be in the air soon, and hopefully the plane will cool down. We wait, and wait, and wait. After what seems like a century, the pilot comes on and let’s us know they’re having a problem with the fuel gauge. They’re going to try to fix it to know how much fuel we actually have, and then we’ll be on our way. I think it was about this point I passed out from sheer heat exhaustion. After another 20 minutes or so, I woke up, my neck screaming in agony, my legs dead from the waist down, and sweat starting to drip from my forehead. The fuel gauge is still not working, and there’s no progress in sight. After another 30 minutes, it appears that the fuel gauge is thwarting the best efforts of United’s top maintenance crew, so they at least let us off the pressure cooker, 90 minutes past departure time and no closer to Toronto. Somebody insightfully wonders aloud about what they used for a fuel gauge on the flight in?

We get to the gate and are told to stay close for updates. The passengers with connections try to get rebooked. They’re understandably upset. But United’s gate agents seem to think the best approach is to meet rudeness with rudeness. The agents are short tempered and surly, snapping at passengers who have the nerve to see if they can somehow get to Toronto before the clock strikes midnight. “Is your luggage checked? Yes? Sorry then, I can’t do anything for you. Go sit down.” I swear to God, that’s the exact quote I heard.

After another hour and a half at the gate, the recalcitrant fuel gauge gives in and we get back on the plane. We finally get in the air by 10, almost 4 hours after the scheduled departure time. The pilot came on to thank us for our patience and assures us we have 3 of United’s finest flight attendants looking after us. There’s nothing wrong with them, but there’s nothing very right either. There was absolutely no attempt to make it up to us. No gesture of apology. If these are United’s finest, the hiring standards must be pretty low.

As we touch down in Toronto, the pilot comes on again and thanks us for flying the friendly skies. Friendly skies? Frat house initiations are less painful than what I just went through!

And here’s my point. Brand messaging has to be more that a cool line for your ads. It should be a promise. It should drive every aspect of the company. It should embody the unique value you offer. I had the chance to share the keynote spotlight at a recent show with David Neeleman, CEO of JetBlue. David quipped at the beginning that when they started JetBlue, their goal was to raise the bar of the airline industry. Quickly they realized that within the industry, the bar was set so low that you could crawl over it. They soon had to look outside the industry to find examples of best practices that meant something.

The brand relationship should be built at every customer touchpoint. I had a number of touchpoints with the United brand on Tuesday, and the sum total left me feeling like I’d been mugged. If United really believes they offer a friendlier experience, then every employee should embody that attitude. None of the ones I met yesterday seemed to have been let in on the secret. The attitudes ranged from indifferent to downright surly.

United has probably spent billions getting their brand message out through advertising. But do you think they could spring a few hundred bucks to treat us all to a drink, or even a free cookie when it really mattered? Brand is built on the front lines, face to face with a customer. It’s delivering when the chips are down. It’s taking responsibility for a positive customer experience, and doing what it takes to fix it when it’s not. United abdicated this responsibility, so their brand message became nothing more than a brand lie. It’s worthless to me. In fact, it’s worse than that, because United just dug a hole for themselves with me that they may never get out of. I will avoid United like the plague from this point forward.

The same is true, to a lesser extent, with Reggio’s and the world’s worst sandwich (somewhat ironic, because I had one of my best sandwiches in Chicago the day before). If their slogan is to be any more than another brand lie, then they have to deliver edible food. The brand has to mean something. How do they expect it to mean something to the consumer when the company itself doesn’t believe the brand message?

Up to now, companies could get away with this. You could screw over the consumer and their circle of influence was limited. Sure, they’d complain, but as long as you kept bumping millions into slick TV ads painting idyllic pictures of brand nirvana, you could keep the ruse going. It was the “sucker born every minute” approach to advertising. But those days are coming to an end. Now, when I call bullshit on a brand message, I have an expanded reach through the internet. Some call it consumer generated media. I call it Bitching 2.0.

There’s a new ecosystem developing online. Marketing theorists have long known of mavens. Mavens are a key component in social epidemics, as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in the Tipping Point. Traditionally, they’re the ones that have been entrusted to keep brands honest. They are the uber-consumers that the rest of us look for guidance to. They tell us what’s good, and what’s not. Traditionally, they needed social connectors to spread the word.

But what happens when you give a maven a blog? Suddenly, connectors are built into the infrastructure of the web. I would argue that the new mavens are the ones with the most read blogs. They’re thoughtful, they’re well informed, and many of us have them pegged in our feed readers. Suddenly, the scope of their influence expands exponentially. As an example, my blog is only a few weeks old, but most of my posts are read by hundreds of people. If I get a link in another blog, the viral impact starts to take over. My rant against a bogus brand message could reach thousands. And there were at least a hundred other passengers on that United flight, just as PO’d as me, any of which could be a blogging maven. The web puts the spread of word of mouth on a dramatically expanded scale, on a compressed timeline. Also, it makes word of mouth, traditionally a fleeting thing, into a permanent fixture online. This blog post will live in perpetuity on the web, searchable by any search engine. Suddenly, the big brands can’t take the reach of a single consumer for granted.

To me, this shift of power to the consumer is one of the most exciting aspects of the web, and it’s long overdue. Now, we have the power to force corporations to keep their brand promise, or perish.

And to the staff of United Flight 1110, let me pass this along. The definition of “friendly” is:

  1. Of, relating to, or befitting a friend
  2. Favorably disposed; not antagonistic
  3. Warm; comforting.

Please pass it along to every United staff member you know.

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